Rest in God: Reflections on biblical rest

 

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“Jesu, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills my breast:
But sweeter far Thy face to see,
And in Thy presence rest.”
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 12th century

What creates unrest in your life?

Worry? Fear? Relationships? Health? Your children’s extra-curricular activities? Bills? Money? Violence?

We live in a world of unrest – of restlessness.

The search term that brings most people to my blog is restlessness, which leads them to “An Answer To a Restless Spirit,” a post I wrote last year. We are people who struggle with unrest and want to know how to overcome it. As I was thinking about what causes unrest in our lives, I thought of the following.

ISIS creates unrest for people who will not convert. Planned Parenthood creates unrest for babies who were once living restfully in their mothers’ wombs. A white racist created unrest for African-Americans worshipping in a church. Gangs create unrest in neighborhoods. The gossiper creates unrest for the gossiped about one.

Sin creates unrest in all of our lives. There are varying degrees of unrest, but it touches each of us because sin touches each of us.

In the United States, I believe, egocentricism and narcissism eats away at our rest like cancer in its last stage. The more we feed on ourselves the more unhappy and restless we become.

How do we find rest? How can we cultivate rest? Or, how can we overcome unrest?

To answer this question we must begin at the beginning – Genesis 1.

In the beginning God created. The creation account describes God making order out of chaos and thereby creating a good and perfect world (Genesis 1-2). At the end of each day “there was evening and there was morning,” language to communicate the completion of a day. Whether or not this was a 24 hour day or a longer period isn’t important for our discussion. But don’t miss this! Guess what happens on Day 7?

“And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”

The seventh day was never meant to end. It is the only day that did not have an evening and morning! The seventh day was not a 24 hour day; it was the reality or the space in time in which God was to live with his people forever.

The seventh day commemorated the fulfillment of his creating acts. His creation and creating was complete, perfect, and good. Each creation day ended with the same refrain, “and behold, it was very good.” When God rested from his work he did so because his work was perfectly finished and completed.

On Day 7 we see God, the Creator, resting in a perfect and unbroken fellowship with his creation, most importantly with the man and woman. Rest is not equal to relaxation. Sometimes I feel worse after waking up from a two-hour nap than I did before the nap! The Hebrew word for rest means “to cease.” God rested or ceased from creating work and rested in a good world in which he created. Therefore, biblical rest is the description of the state or reality where sin is not and everything is perfect and completed.

Notice how the work week doesn’t start over for God. Again, it is complete. It is finished. Creation was meant to live in a state of rest with its Creator forever. 

In Genesis 2:3 God does something that he does not do for any other day. He sanctifies the day as belonging to him. God sanctifies rest. God doesn’t sanctify his other days of work; rather, he makes holy the reality (the day) in which he and his creation would live. Creation was meant to live in unbroken fellowship with God, and creation (including you and me) was created to take part in Day 7 with him. Rest was God’s idea from the beginning – “divine rest in a perfect creation.” (See quote below.) The original couple were invited, created with the intention, to enjoy and participate in that rest with God.

This reality did not mean that the original couple did not work nor did it mean that work was a rest-stealer. Work in a sinless, perfect world was good and not hard (Genesis 2:15).

What disturbs the rest that our Creator was enjoying with his creation in the perpetual seventh day?

Genesis 3 tell us it was sin – disobedience.

Sin disturbs this rest and creates unrest. Or, put another way, sin undoes rest and creation.

The perfect, unbroken fellowship with God is now messed up and broken. Good and restful work now turns into hard work with pain, thorn, and thistles. Adam and Eve are sent out of the place where they once dwelt with God. Their physical reality (moving away from God’s presence) is indicative of their spiritual reality – being separated from God. Creation, which was also once at peace with one another because of it being at peace with God, now turns in on and against itself. The first example we see of this unrest within creation is Cain and Abel. Cain kills his brother because of jealousy. After the Fall, there are continuous patterns of sin taking the people further away from God and from one another into unrest.

We do not hear of the Sabbath after creation until Exodus 31 when Moses is on Mount Sinai.

“But sin ruined that rest in fellowship with the Creator, as well as God’s rest in a creation unspoiled by sin.” This made it impossible for God to impose the Sabbath on a fallen humankind, because the thing it memorialized — divine rest in a perfect creation — had been destroyed. … The idea of the Sabbath, therefore, disappeared from Scripture until it was reinstitute at Mount Sinai for the people whom God redeemed.”[1]

At Mount Sinai, after God has rescued the Hebrew people out of Egypt, God makes a covenant with his redeemed in order to reestablish a new creation. This is known as the Mosaic covenant.

And the Lord said to Moses, “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” (Ex. 31:12-17; See also Lev. 23:3 and Deut. 5:12-15)

Because of what the Sabbath memorialized – peace with God – God does not reestablish the sanctification of the day until he makes a covenant with people whom he had redeemed (pictured perfectly in the Passover as God passed over every household that had blood of a lamb on its doorposts). We cannot enter into God’s rest without first being redeemed. Redemption is necessary to experience rest.

The law of the Sabbath points back to the first Sabbath. In the celebration of the Sabbath the people are sharing in the intended reality of rest with their Creator and now their Redeemer. In God’s redeeming act (as seen in the Passover and release from captivity in Egypt) is the idea of rebirth – God recreating a people for himself. And because God chose to redeem them, he invites them to share with him in his holy day. In return, those who keep the Sabbath will show themselves to be the faithful, true followers of God.

“As the people of God, the Israelites were identified with their Creator and Redeemer by sharing that Sabbath.”[2]

While this day had physical rest implications (garnering strength for a new work week), it was more than that. The day was a day of worship not for personal pursuits. Worship of God ushers us into rest. When we elevate and feast on ourselves, we become more and more restless. When we elevate and feast on God, we find more and more rest. The promise of rest is often given in conjunction with the promise of land. Think of the Israelites as they leave Egypt. God, through Moses, promises both rest and land. The idea of land and rest brings to mind the garden of Eden when the land also saw rest.

The celebration of the Sabbath also points to a future Sabbath – eternal, eschatological rest. Since the time of the Fall, God in salvation history has been working to bring back the seventh day. In Jesus Christ, God has been working to restore and recreate what was lost in the Fall, a time when what once was will be a present reality again.

Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, however, we read that the people of God fail to enter rest and the land because of rebellion and unbelief. The three commandments that the Israelites are most often accused of disobeying are: not worshipping idols, not intermarrying, and not keeping the Sabbath. Unbelief delayed the fulfillment of the promised rest.

As we turn to the New Testament, something changes after the Incarnation. The Sabbath is no longer commanded or imposed. Rather, the Sabbath is descriptive of the reality for those in Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus gives a promise for those who will follow him. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus says he alone holds rest, and therefore he alone is able to gift rest. How is it that Jesus can promise rest, and, therefore, how can we trust that Jesus is able to give it?

First, because he is the lord of the Sabbath. As the incarnate Son of God, through whom the world was made (John 1), Jesus is rightful lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8 and Mark 2:28). “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus with the Father and the Spirit created the world. As Creator, Jesus with the Father and Spirit rested and sanctified rest.

Second, because of Jesus’ salvific work on the cross and in the resurrection. God recreates us through Jesus’ death and resurrection by reconciling us to himself. Listen to how Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:17-19, 21.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this if from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. … For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Jesus puts us back into right relationship with God our Creator. As a result, when we are in a right relationship with our Creator we experience rest. Our proximity to God determines whether or not we will experience rest.

Our four-year-old son has always had difficulty with sleep. Ever since he moved out of a crib, we have struggled with him getting out of his bed in the night to come to our bed. Whether it is us lying by him in order for him to fall asleep or him climbing between us to fall back to sleep when he’s woken up in the night, he can’t seem to find rest unless he is as close to us as possible. Our presence brings comfort and rest to him.

The same is true with us and our Creator, our God, our Father. His presence alone brings true and lasting rest for our souls. The further away from him the more restless we are.

Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God also establishes a new covenant. Jesus tells us this when he institutes the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper or communion is the divine interpretation of the cross. We cannot understand the meaning of Jesus’ death without the Lord’s Supper.

At the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus says this is my body given for you and this is my blood poured out for you. Just like we could do absolutely nothing to bring about our own creation, we, too, can do nothing to bring about our redemption. Just like we were completely dependant upon God for our physical birth, we, too, are completely dependant upon God for our rebirth. Rest, therefore, cannot be earned, bought, or worked for. It is a gift of God that we receive through Jesus Christ, the lord of Sabbath.

What kind of rest does Jesus give us?

First, as just discussed, we rest from works of salvation, from any and all attempts to get to God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). For those who come from other religions or perhaps from a misconstrued type of Christianity, this type of work is very wearisome and burdensome (just like it was for those trying to keep the Sabbath). Taking Jesus’ yoke is to accept the work of salvation he has done on our behalf, and as a result find rest from works of salvation. Works attempted on our own are hard, but works that are a result of the Spirit of God are light and easy.

Second, we rest from sin and the guilt of sin. “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood” (Rev. 1:5b). “For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28). “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).”To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts. 10:43).

Third, the rest we have is peace with God. We are at peace with God because we have been reconciled to God. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).

So what do we do with the Sabbath commandment as Christians?

Since the Sabbath is no longer commanded or imposed, we must not confuse what we do on Sunday as the Sabbath. We come together on Sundays to worship Christ and to celebrate what he has done for us in ushering us into this eschatological rest, but we are no longer under the law of the Sabbath. Instead, in Christ every day is a Sabbath because we are reconciled to God. We are reminded of this reality through worship. And it’s not only spiritual rest, but we also are given physical rest in worship because of who we are worshipping. Therefore, we are able to enter into God’s rest even while still living in a world and a land of unrest that is still waiting for its final redemption because we are at peace with God. This is counterintuitive to what the world offers. The world says to exalt yourself and trust in yourself to find “your best life now.” God says, Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden, those of you who are tired of running away, turning inward, rebelling, and I alone will give you rest.

It doesn’t matter how much we declutter our lives and our homes, how many times we say “no” to good things, how organized we are, how many naps we take, or how many hours we sleep at night. These are good things to give our bodies rest. But we cannot create rest for ourselves. We might look restful or happy on the outside, but without Jesus, without a relationship with God through Jesus that is spent feasting on his Word and in prayer, any rest we have is only a mirage. It is a fake and so thin that the slightest thing will break it, undo it.

But in Christ, we have a foretaste of the seventh day. The not yet will one day be. There will be no more unrest or restlessness when the kingdom of God comes.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.'”

No matter what is causing you unrest or restlessness in the present, daily troubles of this life, rest in Christ. Rest in his salvation. Find rest in your Creator and Redeemer. And rest in his promise that he will one day bring you into his eternal rest where we will once again dwell in that “seventh day.”

 

This post was a session I taught at a woman’s retreat last Spring (2015). These reflections came from my own study of Scripture, but as I later read Ross’s book (see below) and other commentaries, they confirmed what I said in this post. For further reading, read Ross; J.A. Thompson, Deuteronomy (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries); Gordon J. Denham, Genesis 1-15 (World Biblical Commentary); and Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17 (The New International Commentary of the Old Testament).

 

 

[1] Allen Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), p. 397-8.

[2] Ross, p. 399.

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